Frank Herbert’s original 1965 Dune is a double-bladed story—one of a young man set on a spiritual path that prophesies paradise or destruction, one of the precisions of conflict and vulnerabilities of error, and one of the unimaginable powers of faith and its dangers. However, it is the story’s sharp details that make it brilliant. Dune employs an elementary trinity: a balance of slow, tension-building political turmoil; cultural vibrancy; and a simplistic, yet stylish writing style that unwinds complexity. In 2021, Herbert’s legacy lands in Dennis Villeneuve’s hands, and with it, the responsibility of a new adaptation. In this film, Villeneuve guides you through half of Dune’s first book in an awe-aspiring flurry of audiovisual world-building.
A primary element that makes Dune such a unique, intriguing read is its intricate play on the political interactions between the world’s factions. Complicated politics can quickly overstay their welcome within a science fiction story, but in Dune, they are an expertly wielded tool to slowly craft tension and conflict. The first book especially utilizes this by setting a world with unimaginable riches, passed down from foe to foe amid the obvious reluctance, greed, and vulnerability.
Villeneuve’s adaptation captivates this turmoil by adapting a similar, slow-paced structure that builds unease between House Atreides, House Harkonnen, the Emperor, and the Fremen. Each faction upholds distinct values and unspoken motivations. Even the Harkonnens, with their stereotypical evil air, have a believable drive within the great scheme of the Spice. Viewers see the duty and suspicion in Duke Leto’s (Oscar Isaac) stance, the distrustful Stilgar (Javier Bardem), and the conflicted Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). There is a clear progression in this grand game, one move after another.
The political interactions in Dune remain complex. Through the lens of the film, it may be difficult to understand the initial organization of power established between these factions. Some important aspects may also feel underdeveloped, like the importance of the Spice and the role of Mentats—advisors. Reading the book beforehand fixes this issue, but as a standalone film, it is a hindrance born of the tradeoff between a self-developing story and detailed narration. This tradeoff, however, has its purpose.
Dune’s second elementary pillar is its subtle, yet rich, world-building. As previously mentioned, the film skips overstretched narration. Instead, it lets the story unveil the intricate machinations of its world on the way. This approach has costs but excels at preserving the discreet cultural creation of Dune’s world, which seamlessly folds in colour and sound.
The audience can clearly perceive the sophisticated nobility of House Atreides and their righteous stance. The Harkonnens radiate an obvious aura of brutal and exploitative strength, coupled with vicious intelligence portrayed by their scheming Baron (Stellan Skarsgård). The Bene Gesserit, an organization, embrace their shrouded purpose from behind dark veils. These attributes are swiftly allocated, painting an array of distinguished traditions.
Then, there are the Fremen, whose mysterious desert culture is arguably the book’s greatest world-building achievement, and the movie pays tribute to this with matching expert delicacy. Through Paul Atreides’ (Timothée Chalamet) eyes, the Fremen let viewers taste their fascinating traditions in brief flurries: a glimpse of their intricate moisture-preserving, still-suit technology; a desert mouse’s large ears that capture the morning dew; an exchange between leaders, one formal and elegant, the other rash and punctual, respecting not the image of power but rather its raw essence. These subtle elements paint the characteristic exoticism of this desert culture. Walking a fine line between fantasy and science fiction, the Fremen embody overlapping spirituality and cruel nomadic survival. They are experts of the sands they walk, fervent dreamers driven by whispers of paradise, and uncorrupted—for they value not money nor Spice, only the water in their veins.
What the book lacks is music. A reader can only imagine the themes this world dances to. Hans Zimmer does not disappoint with the film’s soundtrack. Imagine the mysterious celestial tonalities of Interstellar, interwoven with flamboyant religious chanting, and completed with the beaconing calls of a dangerous, rewarding world. Each instrument embodies an element. The softness of strings is an asymmetrical step through the lofty air. The pounding drums and marked bagpipes show a pridefully advancing nation. The otherworldly rumbling captures the majesty of Shai-Hulud, the sandworm.
Zimmer is a master of crafting theme and ambiance as one—a technique perfectly suited to the duality of strength in Dune’s environment and people. The scores in this film are breathtaking, perfectly carrying the burning voice of Arrakis.
With a mastery of this trinity, Villeneuve’s Dune is a testimony to the capacities of modern cinematography.